The Road to Ollantaytambo

Having left Pisac late in the afternoon after a LONG walk up and through the ruins, we were pretty tired by the time we changed buses in the transportation crossroads of Urubamba.  From Urubamba we jumped in a colectivo (usually a minivan or van, smaller and a little more expensive than the bus but considerably faster).  We crammed in with the others, both on one of the fold-down seats against the door.  We thought we were full when we left, but before anyone got out, we pulled over to let two ladies and their enormous bag of produce on board.  Space was made from nothing, and the door slid shut.  As the driver accelerated, the older lady fell back onto Donny´s lap and pretty much had no other choice but to remain there until, luckily, two other ladies exited a bit further down the road.  Just before we arrived in Ollantaytambo, the road turned to cobblestone.

Local Ladies Ollantaytambo

The Living Inca City

Ollantaytambo is known as the Living Inca City.  It´s one of those places where things seem untouched.  Since the town was laid out and built on Inca foundations, it’s still easy to see the original design of the city, organized in blocks (canchas). Still clearly evident are these residence groups (where people still live: most commonly a large, stone entryway to a courtyard surrounded by living spaces). There are also temples, deposits (of grains and other foodstuff), lookouts and many other structures and enclosures.  Ollantaytambo is located at the intersection of three valleys, at the western end of the Sacred Valley region.  It was both a strategic point, as well as a traditional resting and restocking place on the way through the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu and other areas.  Ollantaytambo was also the site of an important battle of resistance against the Spanish.

Having been chased from Cuzco to this point, the Inca forces cut off water to the valley, releasing the backed-up force of the river when the Spanish arrived, killing hundreds in the deluge that followed.  This angered the Spanish, so they caused even more destruction to temples and buildings than usual when they finally recovered and moved in. We found a comfortable room easily, and had an early night after dinner.  Bright and early, we set out to the less-visited side of town, following the advice of our inn´s owner.  She told us it would be warmer and less windy to climb up this side in the morning.  It was another steep climb, but well worth it.  We were able to access three separate clusters of walls, rooms and lookout spots at three different altitudes.  The largest structure was three levels of long buildings, joined together.  We later learned these were most likely storage for grain and food.  Why so high up the mountain when people lived down in the valley?  Since flooding was quite common, people knew to store extra food up high for access in times of crisis.  Also, the constant cool breeze at this altitude acted as a sort of refrigeration, keeping food fresher longer.On Cerro Bandolista Back in town, we walked up and down the cobblestone streets, those parallel to the river all had a water channel running down for drainage and irrigation.  As we were walking down the hill toward the main ruins, we came face to face with a bull on a leash.  The man walking the bull (honestly, the man was being walked by the bull) was desperately trying to encourage the bull to make a right turn off the main street.  The bull had other ideas, and walked a few meters in several directions, causing a few very nervous moments for us as well as two police officers.  We all took a few steps back, trying to see which way the bull was going to decide on.  Finally, he cooperated with the tugging on his leash, and was rewarded with a slap from the man, which in turn sent them both running down the side street!

Cerro Bandolista

The Main Ruins at Ollantaytambo

It was hard to think we could be more impressed than we were the previous day at Pisaq, but Ollantaytambo succeeded.  (Ollantaytambo is also included in Nat Geo Travel’s great Gallery of Top Inca Ruins that aren’t Machu Picchu.) We shared a guide with a family from Lima.  Juan Carlos gave a very thorough and interesting tour through all of the main sections (there are both pre-Inca and Inca sections here).  Ollantaytambo served multiple purposes: administrative, religious, military and residential.  We first saw the Temple of the Sun, which, although deteriorated through destruction by the Spanish as well as by those who used blocks from the temple for new construction, is still a wonder.  We learned how they think hundreds of people were mobilized to bring huge monoliths to the site from the rock quarry miles away in another part of the mountain.  No one is exactly sure of the details, but as it was explained to us, the process took months to move just one slab of pink granite, and included blocking parts of the river to get the rock across.  Once high up at the site of the temple, pieces of wood and smaller rocks were used to maneuver and leverage the huge stones into place.

We also learned that ceremonial and other important places were marked by double entryways.  Some of the doorways also acted as calendars, as the sun shines through at different angles on different dates (the solstices in particular).  Below we could see where the virgins (who participated in religious ceremonies and made offerings…they were NOT sacrificed) lived. Ollantaytambo is unique, and has some things even Machu Picchu doesn´t have: pre-Inca structures, evidence of different construction techniques and materials, and newer Inca structures built on top of older ones.

We also found how different animal shapes important to the culture were incorporated into buildings.  We saw the shapes of the condor, snake and puma most commonly in different ruins we visited.  Below the Temple of the Sun were planted terraces, stairways, passages, enclosures with niches for offerings.  There was also a section of bathing and purification with fountains and waterways.  At one spot, the bathing area of the princess, the guide showed us how, through some aspect of the water´s surface tension, you could almost shut the water off temporarily (to soap up) and turn in back on again (rinse).  It seemed like magic.  This bath also had the added feature of an upper “filter” that made the water totally pure and clean before it reached the bather.

The amount of information and the visuals that go along with it are overwhelming.  There are lots of sources online to read up on the details, but best of all would be to start planning a trip!  For photos of our visit, click here.

Ollantaytambo View

About the author

Tamara and Donny have wandered together since 2004, with no cure for their insatiable wanderlust. They write about discovering new destinations including beautiful photography, plus budget travel tips and how to give back through travel.